The Theory of Deferred Action: Informing the Design of Information Systems for Complexity

The Theory of Deferred Action: Informing the Design of Information Systems for Complexity

Nandish V. Patel (Brunel University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-659-4.ch010
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Abstract

The problem addressed is how to design rationally information systems for emergent organization. Complexity and emergence are new design problem that constrains rational design. The reconciliation of rationalism and emergence is achieved in the theory of deferred action by synthesizing rationalism and emergence. Theories on designing for normal organisation exist but most of them are borrowed from reference disciplines. The theory of deferred action is based in the information systems discipline and is presented as a theory to inform practice to improve the rational design of information systems for emergent organisation. It has the potential of becoming a reference theory for other disciplines in particular for organisation studies. As emergence is a core feature of complexity, the base theory for the theory of deferred action is complexity theory. The theory of deferred action explains the effect of emergence on the rational design of information systems. As a theory to inform practice it provides guidance in the form of design constructs on how to design rationally information systems for emergent organization.
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Introduction

We have been designing, developing, and using information systems in business organizations using computers and lately information technology for nearly sixty years. But what is our understanding of an information system? The practice of information systems has been driven by the invention of digital technology, computers, information technology and lately information and communication technology. Many advances in our knowledge of how to develop information systems have come from practitioners. Practitioners have also built actual information systems that have become the object of study for researchers. These include transaction processing systems, decisions support systems, expert systems, and recently ebusiness systems and enterprise resource planning systems.

Some advances in our understanding have come from researchers. Early understanding of an information system as a technological system improved with knowledge of information systems as socio-technical systems, acknowledging the human social context in which information systems are developed and used. Researchers now define an information system as composing people, organisation and information technology. Some theories on information systems have been proposed (Walls, et al., 1992). Markus, et al., (2002) propose, a design theory for systems that support emergent knowledge processes, (179-21). But we lack good theoretical understanding of information systems.

What is a simple information system and what is a complex information system? When is it simple to design information systems for a business organisation and when is it complex? It is simple when there is no design uncertainty. Possibly when what is wanted is perfectly known, and when complete and predictable information and knowledge is available to organize the available resources to achieve it. Information on available resources should be complete too. This kind of simplicity is not available to designers because there is much design uncertainty in organizations. Designers do not have complete and perfect information and knowledge about the artifact they design because organizational members themselves lack the knowledge. Designers work with incomplete knowledge of want is wanted, imperfect information about how to design and develop, as well as incomplete information on available resources and how to organize them. The cause of this design uncertainty is complexity.

The predictive capacity of designers is central. Prior to design the purpose of the organisation is knowable to a large extent but it can and does change unpredictably after the organisation has been setup. Commercial companies’ purpose of maximizing shareholder value has changed to consider the impact on the natural environment. Consequently, new information on carbon accounting is obtained by adding new information systems or making adjustments to existing ones. An information system is simple when the organisation and the information required to manage it can be predetermined, its design and development is also relatively simple. When design is predictable there is an absence of complexity. Uncertainty about the information required to manage the organisation arises when aspects of the organisation cannot be predetermined. The core of this uncertainty is highly unpredictable situations that arise in the course of organizational life. The absence of the predictive capacity of designers is the essence of design complexity.

Business organisation as a social system is complex. The functions of information systems for a business organisation are far from simple. Functionality is complex not only because of design uncertainty but also because the social system itself is complex (unpredictable). Structure and resources of the organisation are unpredictable (Feldman, 2000; 2004). Patterns of communication between humans within the organization, and between humans and information systems, cannot be completely predetermined for design purposes. As patterns of human communication within the organisation are highly complex it is not simple to determine the necessary information flows. Patterns of information flows between the organisation and its environment are similarly not pre-determinable completely. Also the situations in which information will be used are not pre-determinable exhaustively.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Formalism: Prescribed methods containing precise symbols and rules for creating structural forms to achieve set objectives.

Reflective Designer: Designers of structural forms containing deferment mechanisms for deferred operational design. Teams of professional organization and systems designers.

Systemic Deferment Points: Junctures within existing formal systems where operational design (and for real systems structural design) are deferred to action designers.

Individual Deferment Points: Junctures in purposeful action within existing formal structures where next steps are indeterminate.

Planned Action: Planned action is prescribed action enacted by design regardless of actuality.

Real Design Decisions: Real-time design decisions by action designers in response to emergent events in actuality.

Specified Design Decisions: Design decisions by reflective designers separated spatially and temporally from actuality.

Design Domain: The planned action notion of an actual organizational problem demarcated for systems design by specification.

Deferred Design: Deferred design is design by action designers within formal design to cope with unknowable emergence, space and time, ‘equivocal reality’.

Action Designer: Action designer is someone engaged in organised action, needs scope to design within bounds of specified design of formal organization or system design. Has knowledge of actual action, determines design in actual space and time. They come to know and have procedural knowledge, which is stronger than declarative knowledge.

Deferred System: Systems architecture designed by reflective designers whose actual operational functionality takes shape in context through behaviours determined by action designers.

Autonomous Design Decisions: Design decision made by intelligent agents or systems.

Emergence: A term to describe unknowable and unpredictable social action in all its multifarious aspects. Philosophically, it is instrumental in determining being.

Autonomous Designer: Intelligent agents or systems.

SEST: The attributes of rational design conducive to actuality.

Systems Deferment Point Analysis: Technique to determine structural and operational design deferrable to action designers.

Deferred Design Decisions: Design decisions enabled by reflective designers but made by action designers in context.

Real Organization: Organizational structure and operations designed and enacted in emergent actuality and in real-time.

Enacting: Enacting is the act of putting design in social action with interrelations design capable of real-time structural and operational functionality design. Enacting enables action designers to make design decisions in response to Complete SEST.

Deferred Organization: Structure designed by reflective designers whose actual operations take shape in context through behaviours determined by action designers.

Autonomous System: Systems behaving independently of its human reflective designers.

Emergent Organization: Social action that is organised but subject to emergence.

Real Systems: Systems architecture and operations designed and enacted in emergent actuality and in real-time.

Specified Design: Design by reflective designers from specification obtained from users.

Deferred Action: Deferred action is concerned with enabling actual action as interrelation design within formal design. It is synthesis of planned action and actual (deferred) action.

Problem Space: Metamorphic space where human concern is progressively systematised and formalised to derive a solution.

Autonomous Design: Design capability afforded to intelligent machines by reflective designers that becomes autonomous of humans.

Real Design: Design of structures and operations by rational design for enactment in emergent actuality and responsive to it in real-time.

Actuality: The domain of empirical. Present time.

Technological Deferment Points: Junctures within technology where operational design (and for real technology structural design) are deferred to action designers.

Situated Action: Action that is rich in phenomenological attribution.

Specified System: Systems architecture and operations designed by reflective designers for business workers.

Rational Design: Rational design is conscious event at some point in organized social action to determine the future. It is abstract design because the design objects are some orders removed from actuality.

Systemic Deferred Objects: Representation of real things in systems by deferred design.

Specified Organization: Organizational structure and operations designed by reflective designers for business workers.

Natural Design: The conscious and unconscious determination of objectives and action leading to its achievement by conscious or unconscious determination of structure and responses to emergence in actual space and time.

Organization: Determination of goal-directed actions leading to structural forms whose actual form is the result of responses to degrees of emergence.

Organizational Deferment Points: Junctures in purposeful organised action within existing formal structures where next steps are indeterminate.

Off-Design: In terms of SEST structure is designable by specification. Off-design is the emergent, spatial, temporal aspects of organized action that cannot be specified for design. Off-design is the universal set of natural design. Some structural properties of action cannot be specified either.

Formal Methods: System of symbols representative of reality and rules for abstraction of things form reality and their composition to form models.

Specification Formalism: Prescribed methods for creating structural forms and operational detail to achieve set objectives.

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